PHOENIX – Retired Christian missionaries Frank and Betty Lusk had no intention of buying another timeshare while on a Caribbean cruise last year.
But by the time the trip was over, a charming Diamond Resorts salesman had persuaded them to buy a $150,000 timeshare with $19,000 in annual fees. They borrowed against their Phoenix-area retirement home to pay for it, the Lusks said.
"They called it a dream holiday. Actually, it was a nightmare," said Frank, 89, who was a music professor. "It was the dumbest thing we ever did."
Desperate for a way out, they agreed to an exit company's hefty fees to try to negotiate an end to the contract.
Betty, an 88-year-old former librarian, has had insomnia and fainting spells from the stress. She's gone to the hospital several times, she said.
A hard sell from Diamond Resorts
The Lusks have used timeshares for years to visit Scotland, Florida, Alaska, Hawaii and the Caribbean and have given trips to their children. Many of the contracts were affordable and straightforward, they said.
By last year, all were paid off except one with Las Vegas-based Diamond Resorts worth more than $50,000, they said.
"We've enjoyed the timeshares," Betty said.
But the Lusks said Diamond Resorts lied to them in a September 2018 sales presentation and used hardball tactics that echo prior complaints from consumers, such as not adequately explaining all the costs of the timeshare and failing to honor their request to cancel the agreement within the legal time frame.
In 2017, Diamond Resorts agreed to reform sales practices, pay a large fine and cancel dozens of contracts in a deceptive-practices case with the Arizona Attorney General's Office.
Diamond Resorts believes in "transparency and accountability," spokesman Bruce Miller said in a written statement, while declining to comment on the Lusks' case. "We strive to provide excellent customer service and a transparent sales process at all times."
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When the Lusks took the most recent cruise in September, Diamond Resorts promised a special reception on a private island, they said.
Instead of a relaxing dinner, they were ushered into a meeting with a salesman.
He told the Lusks buying another $150,000 timeshare with 10 percent down was "life insurance" that would resolve any debts they had with the resort when they died, a promise they repeatedly questioned, Betty said. The timeshare contract they received is not life insurance and does not pay off debts upon death.
The salesman showed them documents he wouldn't let them keep and didn't mention the high maintenance fees that appeared in the final contract, she said.
"He really talked us hard into getting this," Betty said.
A change of heart
When the cruise landed on their 68th wedding anniversary, Betty and Frank were wracked with regret.
They sent a certified letter to Diamond Resorts, within the legal window to cancel the contract, the Lusks said.
"We do not want to encumber ourselves with further debt at our ages," they wrote.
The salesman called.
"If you can believe it, he talked us into it again," Frank said. "We're too trusting."
"We're Christian people," Betty said. "I guess we’re not as worldly wise."
Shortly after, the couple wrote a second letter demanding cancellation. They accused the company of elder abuse.
"Keeping this contract would lead to our bankruptcy," the Lusks wrote.
Bills kept coming
In December, Diamond Resorts confirmed the timeshare had been rescinded.
"This letter is to confirm the cancellation of your vacation ownership interest with Diamond Resorts," the company said. "We sincerely hope you will choose Diamond Resorts in the future to provide you with priceless memories."
But the bills kept coming. On the phone, company representatives told the Lusks the contract was still in place, the couple said.
Desperate, the Lusks hired Timeshare Exit Team, a Seattle-based firm that says it can help consumers get out of timeshares.
The company charged the Lusks $10,000, promising to refund the fee if the exit is unsuccessful. The Lusk case is ongoing.
Fees for a contract as large as theirs can top $50,000, although most cases average $5,000, Timeshare Exit Team CEO Brandon Reed said. The firm has worked with more than 30,000 customers, he said.
Reed started the company after a divorce and single fatherhood meant he couldn't pay his timeshare dues.
"I felt very stuck and alone," he said.
Hearing what Diamond Resorts did to the Lusks angered Reed.
"It's a rip-off. It's a complete scam," he said.
Reed recently founded a group called Coalition to Reform Timeshare that advocates for tighter regulations. His main goal is preventing resorts from locking people into lifetime contracts.
"The timeshare industry are big bullies," Reed said.
Timeshare companies and consumer advocates warn that some exit companies charge excessively high fees or are scams themselves.
Diamond Resorts "strongly encourages our members to reach out to Diamond directly should they be contacted by a third-party company making claims to 'transfer' or 'exit' their timeshare," Miller said. "Diamond Resorts does not work with or affiliate with these fraudulent companies."
Efforts to protect buyers
Stories like the Lusks' have motivated some Arizona lawmakers, with support from Attorney General Mark Brnovich, to push a bill to increase timeshare transparency and allow consumers more time to back out.
There is a "need for more disclosure in timeshare contracts," sponsor Arizona state Rep. Shawna Bolick, R-Phoenix, said. The attorney general "receives several hundred complaints to their office every single year regarding timeshares."
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House Bill 2639 passed unanimously in the House but ran into opposition in the Senate.
The new version, which passed the committee 7-0, would require timeshare companies to state in clear writing:
An estimate of the total costs in the first year.
An estimate of the total maintenance fees in the first year as well as the total maintenance fees charged over the past three years, if available.
Consumers may face maintenance fees, taxes and other assessments every year.
Timeshares are not investments.
Promises made in the sales presentation aren't binding. Only the contract is.
Consumers have 10 days to cancel a contract.
Consumers can complain to the Arizona Attorney General's Office.
"It's important we're constantly addressing consumer protection needs," Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, said. But "the underlying bill was a little too restrictive for the industry."
Timeshare representatives had warned the original version of the bill could inhibit the growth of a tourism sector that provides more than 4,000 jobs in Arizona.
The revised bill still would need final approval of both the full Arizona House and Senate.
The Lusks said they hope Arizona will do more to protect people like them. They advise anyone considering a timeshare to think twice.
"Don't get involved," Frank said. "They'll twist your arm into buying more. It's always another presentation."
How to protect yourself
Realize that a timeshare company may use tough sales tactics with you for hours before giving you any free gifts.
Before going in, if you are in Arizona, turn on a voice recording app on your cellphone, like iPhone Voice Memos, and keep it in your breast pocket, purse or hand. If a salesperson makes a promise that isn't in the contract, you will have the recording as evidence. States like Arizona do not require you to ask for permission to record. Find rules in other states here.
Talk ahead of time with your spouse or family member about when and under what conditions you will leave together, and stick with that decision. Don't hesitate to leave anytime the presentation becomes too high pressure. If one of you is done, get up and go.
Ask the company to provide a written estimate of the total cost, including yearly maintenance, utilities and other fees, for five, 10, 20 and 30 years out.
Make sure you know the length of the contract. A lifetime contract means you can't get rid of it until you die.
Look in the contract or search online for laws in your state about the right to cancel. You may have three, seven, 10 or no days after signing to change your mind.
Before signing anything, tell the sales staff you need to take the contract home to look it over. Then have it reviewed by an attorney.
Be skeptical if a salesperson tells you a timeshare is a good investment and will rise in value. Look at any timeshare resale site and you’ll see people trying to get rid of theirs for a dollar.
Source: Arizona Attorney General's Office.
Do this before allowing someone to sell or cancel your timeshare
Never trust anyone calling you out of the blue to buy your timeshare. Falling for an unsolicited offer is how one man got conned out of $24,000.
If your timeshare company offers to help you resell your timeshare, be firm when you call; otherwise, a salesperson may upsell you.
Some "exit" companies promise to get you out of a contract. Be careful. They often charge hefty fees and sometimes are unsuccessful or even a scam.
Check exit companies out. See if the state attorney general, local consumer-protection agencies or the Better Business Bureau has complaints. Then search online by entering the company name and the word “complaints” or “scam.”
Deal only with licensed real-estate brokers or agents. Check with the real-estate commission in the state where your timeshare is located to make sure the company has a current license.
Beware of fake documents or licenses that look real. For instance, when checking a company out, don't call a phone number given to you or trust that a licensed agent is involved without talking to that person. Instead, call the number listed on the official website for the company or call the real-estate agency and ask for the broker by name.
Get all terms in writing before agreeing to anything, including services the company will perform, timing of the sale, fees and commissions, and cancellation and refund policies.
If a resale company says you have to act immediately, it's not a company you want to do business with.
Look for a company that gets paid after the timeshare is sold. If a company offers to get your money back from a timeshare resale scam but wants you to pay them before they do anything for you, walk away. This is a classic setup for another scam.
Never wire money, especially to a foreign country, or pay in cash.
If it's too good to be true, it probably is.
Source: Arizona Attorney General's Office, Federal Trade Commission.
Follow Rebekah L. Sanders on Twitter: @RebekahLSanders
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Company persuades Arizona couple, nearly 90, to buy $150,000 timeshare